In the year that’s passed since a Williamsburg parent spotted errors in a Virginia history textbook, scholars and historians have been combing through books and tests to see if other misinformation is making it into classrooms.
Local author Bill Bryant has joined them, voicing concerns about how the state teaches students about Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion. He sent a nine-page critique of state-approved textbooks and Standards of Learning questions to Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright on Oct. 2. After reviewing his criticisms, she responded by letter to say his concerns would be filed until the state conducts its 2015 review of the History and Social Science Standards. The standards are reviewed and updated every seven years.
Bryant responded with a second letter to show his disappointment that students might still be exposed to inaccuracies. “As an educator and as a Virginian who cherishes history, I consider your response quite inadequate and unacceptable,” he wrote.
In his research of the textbooks, Bryant found inaccurate dates and some vague descriptions of how many people died as a result of the rebellion. In one book, it was described as taking place near Richmond, rather than in Southampton County. In other instances, Bryant disagreed with word choices, such as the description of the farms as “plantations.”
Bryant is particularly interested in Nat Turner because he authored a book about the event called, “Tomorrow Jerusalem: The Story of Nat Turner and the Southampton Slave Insurrection” in 2002. “Inaccuracy and misinterpretation have plagued the story from the beginning,” he said, noting a Richmond newspaper editor wrote in Sept. 1831 that he was astonished to see how many rumors were circulated about the event.
Although Bryant knew the standards are not due to be reviewed until 2015, he recommended the Department of Education distribute a teacher’s guide correcting some of the errors he found. “Considering that these textbooks, and others probably similarly flawed, are being used nationwide, VDOE would demonstrate initiative and leadership by arranging the distribution of the teacher’s guide to state departments of education nationwide,” he said in his first letter to Wright. After receiving her response, which did not indicate the state would distribute such a guide, he said he will distribute a teacher’s guide on his own.
Virginia’s history and social studies textbooks came under scrutiny last year when the first editions of two elementary textbooks published by Five Ponds Press were found to include significant errors. Among other mistakes, one book stated the Confederacy had two battalions of black soldiers commanded by Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Fourth-grade textbook “Our Virginia: Past and Present” and fifth-grade textbook “Our America to 1865” both lost Virginia Board of Education approval; Five Ponds Press made changes and reprinted the textbooks at no cost to the schools that purchased the books.
The discoveries of errors triggered more reviews of Five Ponds Press books, and the Board of Education adopted a more rigorous textbook review process in March. The proposal process places primary responsibility for accuracy on publishers, who must certify textbooks have been thoroughly examined and reviewed by qualified content experts for factual accuracy and must list all authors/editors and their credentials. The publishers must also certify the books have been reviewed for typographical errors and grammatical errors, and sign an agreement stating that if errors are found, the publisher will submit a corrective action plan to the Department of Education for review and approval by the Board of Education.
VDOE Director of Communications Charles Pyle said the difference between the Five Ponds Press errors and Bryant’s criticisms is that the former were in conflict with the state’s standards, which are tested in the SOLs. In that instance, “it was never our thought teachers would go robotically through that book and teach the incorrect information,” Pyle said. “But we wanted to make sure it was on their radar screens. It’s been a painful experience; we’re now at a point where we have revised versions of those two books that are, without a doubt, the most heavily scrutinized textbooks ever to be sent to Virginia public schools.”
He said the Department of Education has occasionally distributed teacher’s guides like those suggested by Bryant, but only when a revelation has been made that renders the state’s standards obsolete. “When Pluto was downgraded from planet status, it happened sort of midway through the period, so the board didn’t reopen the science standards of learning,” Pyle said. “We addressed this in communications with the school divisions.”
He said it is common to receive comments and criticisms from the public, and they are filed until the review and revision process. “Our perspective is: What is important for a student to know to meet a reasonable standard of knowledge?” Pyle said.